Remind me, why am I invested in this romance novel?

If I have to be reminded why I’m invested in a lead character in a romance novel, that writer has lost me.  My first inclination is to slam the book shut and never open it again, because nothing says sloppy to me (well, jarring point of view shifts are also in this category) like a hero or heroine who does something out of character.  Yes, we want our lead characters to be flawed, otherwise we don’t identify, but when the “heroine” (and those quotes are deliberate) screams at her housekeeper, mistreats a waiter at a restaurant, or snubs her nose at the Macy’s sales clerk, she’s unredeemable.

Maybe I’ve bought into the universal call for random acts of kindness, but allowing a hero or heroine to be unkind will pull me out of the story.  I’m not advocating wimpy characters here.  I want the good guys and gals to have backbone and spunk, but if they give me that nouveau riche “I’m better than you” crap, I know there’s a serious character flaw that cannot be corrected.  I’d also have to wonder about the writer.  Maybe she’s trying to convey sophistication, but in my world, well-brought-up ladies and gentlemen know that seven degrees of separation is not a stretch.

I recently finished a story by a passable author whose heroine called her intended’s former girlfriend a slut about 50 too many times.   She literally shouted it from the rooftops.  I’d have been much more impressed with her integrity if she’d kept her mouth shut.  A secondary character in this book, while at a newsstand with the heroine, reamed out the newsboy for handing her a soggy paper.  She went way overboard.  The heroine should have put her arm around her friend and spirited her away, but that didn’t happen.  She just impassively watched the exchange.  I guess she was still thinking about the slut.

Early in my writing career, I received a rejection letter from a publisher who was kind enough (there’s that word kind again) to point out the flaws in my story.  Number one, she said, was that my characters were one-dimensional.  She pointed me to Charlotte Dillon’s excellent character chart (www.charlottedillon.com), and I fleshed out my characters.  That manuscript is now Delora’s Necklace, my Mayan time travel novel that was published in January 2009.

Sure, it’s a lot more work to do character charts, but it saves time and anguish in the long run.  I don’t have to guess how my characters will behave in any given situation because I know them inside out.  I know their past hurts, their family background, their educational level, their favorite color, and what two items they’d take to a desert island.  I know whether they were popular or geeky in high school and whether they obsess about anything.  I know their deepest secrets, and though I may not reveal everything I know about my characters in the story, the richness of what I know comes through without words.

Susan Blexrud’s paranormal romance, The Gettysburg Vampire, will debut November 5 from Crimson Romance.

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8 Comments

  1. Great post, Susan. Here’s wishing you many sales!
    -R.T. Wolfe

    • Many thanks, R.T.!

  2. Great point – There’s so much ugliness and hatred in real life, that pat of the appeal of romance fiction is the emphasis on optimism.

    • I agree, Lola. It goes along with our insistence on a happy-ever-after!

  3. You really hit the bull’s eye with this one, Susan! Once the reader’s sympathy is lost, it’s so hard to gain it back! I love a character who needs to grow, but we have to see the potential right from the beginning! After we’re won over, we will follow them anywhere. Think of Catniss in The Hunger Games…once we saw how she adored and protected her little sister, a thousand tough attitudes and actions couldn’t turn us against her. Thanks for reminding us of this so-important rule!

    • Thank YOU, Kathleen. And you’re so right about Catniss. Because Suzanne Collins showed us her heroine’s loving nature at the start, we were immediately invested.

  4. I think making your character just a bit sympathetic at the beginning is so important. I love your cover, btw.

    • Thanks, Lynn. I’m quite happy with the cover myself. I was looking for some intensity, and I sure got it!


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